Ruscus aculeatus, known as butcher's-broom, is a low evergreen Eurasian shrub, with flat shoots known as cladodes that give the appearance of stiff, spine-tipped leaves. Small greenish flowers appear in spring, and are borne singly in the centre of the cladodes. The female flowers are followed by a red berry, and the seeds are bird-distributed, but the plant also spreads vegetatively by means of rhizomes. It is native to Eurasia and some northern parts of Africa. Ruscus aculeatus occurs in woodlands and hedgerows, where it is tolerant of deep shade, and also on coastal cliffs. Likely due to its attractive winter/spring color, Ruscus aculeatus has become a fairly common landscape plant. It is also widely planted in gardens, and has spread as a garden escapee in many areas outside its native range. The plant grows well in zones 7 to 9 on the USDA hardiness zone map.
Ruscus’s common name Butcher’s Broom hails from one of its original uses. In Europe, Ruscus species were traditionally harvested for their flat and stiff branches to make small brooms that were used for clearing off and cleaning butchering blocks. Recent research has uncovered that butcher’s broom contains some antibacterial compounds. This suggests that in addition to the functional physical properties of Ruscus species, increased effectiveness in cleaning and producing safer products due to unrecognized antibacterial oils may have contributed to its popularity and subsequent nickname.
Traditional medicinal usage
Butcher’s broom has been used by a variety of peoples as a treatment for a variety of ailments. A classical remedy from Europe claimed that the rhizomes could be used as a diuretic. In ancient Greece, butcher’s broom was used as a laxative or diuretic, and it was also believed to remove kidney stones when added to wine. Butcher’s broom was also used to reduce swelling and to speed the recovery of fractures.
In the modern day, it is the butcher’s broom rhizome and its extract that are of interest. It is usually given orally as a powder or tincture. The rhizomes are the most commonly used part of the plant and are proposed as possible treatment of many lower limb issues, especially those dealing with or relating to circulation. Specifically, Ruscus aculeatus is being investigated for treatment of Chronic Vascular Insufficiency (CVI) and Chronic Vascular Diseases (CVD) (especially leg heaviness/ fatigue and sensations of tightness or tingling in legs), itching and burning of hemorrhoids, orthostatic hypotension, and cellulitis.
European health agencies, including the German Commission E, the European Scientific Cooperative on Phototherapies, and European Medicines Agency, all recognize the benefits of Ruscus aculeatus for alleviating symptoms of chronic venous insufficiency. Several studies have been conducted on the efficacy of Ruscus aculeatus on CVI and the related symptoms such as varicose veins. A study done over the course of three months found that there was a significant difference between patients taking Ruscus aculeatus and the placebo in terms of leg volume and circumference. The butcher’s broom had noticeably decreased leg volume and circumference by week 12 of treatment. This study concluded that the German recommended dosage is effective and safe. Side effects of butcher’s broom are rare and not dangerous though some cases of nausea have been reported.
The major phytochemicals in butcher’s broom are steroidal saponins. Saponins occur naturally in plants as glycosides and have foam forming properties. The specific saponins found in butcher’s broom are ruscogenins, ruscogenen and neoruscogenin, named for the Ruscus genus. Ruscogenins function as anti-inflammatory agents and are also believed to cause constriction in veins. Currently the mode of action of ruscogenins is not well understood, but one proposed mechanism suggests that ruscogenins suppresses leukocyte migration through both protein and mRNA regulation.
Newer research has also uncovered that there are polyphenols present in butcher’s broom may also be physiologically active, possibly as an antioxidant. As of yet there is not enough evidence to make a conclusion, but since they have now been synthesized in labs further research should be in progress.
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- kneeholy, knee holly, kneeholm
- Jew's myrtle
- sweet broom
- Greek: λαγομηλιά (lagomilia), hare's apple, and κεντρομυρρίνη (kentromyrrine) [Theophrastus, Inquiry into Plants, 3.17.4]
- French: le fragon, the butcher
- Italian: pungitopo, mouse stinger
Other cultivars include 'Christmas Berry'.
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